I had been quiet for most of the evening, letting Nike and the rest tell their stories. I smiled into the flames, trying to think of what I would contribute to the evening’s entertainment. The shine of the firelight on everyone’s faces made me think back to one of the strangest things I had seen in my very long life. I smiled and began when the conversation lulled to a companionable murmur.
“Have I ever told you all of the time I saw the Shining Host crossing through the veil between worlds?”
I knew they would think me mad as a box of frogs, but I knew what I had seen, back in the days when the world wasn’t nearly as simple as people thought.
I had been fishing at dusk, knee-deep in a stream, a heavy string of fat trout keeping fresh in the icy water. In the rising dark, something caught my eye moving through the trees. The biggest red deer I had ever seen had come up to the edge of the clearing, striding majestically through the low scrubby brambles like Hera crossing the halls of Olympus.
I was used to the rulers of the forest crossing my path from time to time as I had made myself at home, but this one was different, and it took me a moment to realize why. The stag had beautiful green and gold ribbons woven through his magnificent antlers, strung with tiny bells that chimed as he paced through the clearing.
He was followed by another stag, just as huge, but this one’s antlers were festooned with tiny baubles of light, flickering like fireflies and casting a glow like a constellation fallen to earth among the trees. I rubbed my eyes, certain I was hallucinating, but there he was, proceeding along the deer trail that cut through the break in the forest.
A third deer, a doe that was made of moonlight, impossibly white in the greens and blacks and browns of the dusky forest, wearing banners of spring green festooned with garlands of gold surrounding a silver tree with the moon cradled in its bare branches.
More and more appeared, with beautiful riders mounted upon them, elegant and graceful, slender faces and pointed ears and hair that looked fine as spiderwebs. I had never seen anything like them. I stood frozen as they continued along the path.
There were warriors, in tooled leather armour, and courtiers draped in jewels and fabrics that made silk look like sackcloth. Then the music hit my ears, and it took all my restraint to not run towards the procession, just to keep it in my ears for as long as possible.
Apollo himself couldn’t have made something so gorgeous, so ethereal, so enchanting – and to have it be played by these beings while sitting on the back of animals walking through a dark forest? It beggared belief…but still, my feet wanted to carry me towards them, to see where they were going, to dance to that music.
In the middle of the procession rode one of the shining beings, the epitome of masculine beauty, a golden crown balanced on his brow. His queen was next to him, hair black as pitch, brilliant in silver where he was gilded. She wore a shining crown studded with diamonds the size of quail’s eggs, glimmering in the odd bluish-green foxfire that seemed to circle around her like friendly kittens, gamboling in the evening breeze. And behind them…
My breath caught in my throat. There were a pair of stags, draped in the flowers and fruits of summer and fall, in line behind the king, and a pair of does draped in the snows of winter and soft greens and tender blooms of spring trotting behind the queen. The spring doe even had a pair of fawns at heel, all legs and ears, each with a dainty flower crown.
I paused a moment in my storytelling to take a drink, leaning back against Connor in the warmth of the fire, appreciating the rapt look of my audience. He squeezed my shoulder once and draped his arm around my waist. He had heard the story before, after all, at least once a year since he was born. It was one of the legends of the Pack – the day the Lady lost her senses.
I’d never felt anything like it before, and never again since. Not many things, if anything that I can remember, can compel an Olympian to do anything against her will. It was something that would stick out in any case, otherworldly beauty notwithstanding.
They passed by for what seemed like hours, with the sounds of bells and harps and drums and strange singing without words, and the end of the procession mirrored the beginning, with bells and lights.
The spell broke abruptly, and I was freezing cold. My skirts were soaked, and I could see a few of the Satyroi standing guard across the river, a watchful eye on me.
“You all right, lassie?” It was Hector, looking concerned.
I didn’t answer but lunged for the riverbank. I had to catch up with that procession, to see where it went, to find out where they came from. I hadn’t wanted anything so much in my entire life as to follow them.
Hector caught me by the arm and bellowed something at me in Gaelic – A bheil thu air d ’inntinn a chall, a bhean? Have you lost your mind, Lady?
I shook free of his grasp with a snarl and ran faster. The lights were disappearing, playing games with my eyes, flickering in and out, first tantalizingly close, then vanishingly far, and I knew I didn’t have much time.
I tripped on a tree root and went sprawling, rising with a mouthful of dirt and scraped palms, but kept going. I could hear the satyrs behind me, telling me to stop, that if I kept going I’d be lost forever.
I had almost caught up with the last stag when I saw the other members of the procession entering into an ornately carved stone gate in the side of the hill – and I knew that gate hadn’t been there before. That side of the hill faced north, and never got any direct sun, so it was my favourite place to pick mushrooms. I was certain I would have noticed a ten-foot tall stone edifice wide enough for two stags to walk abreast.
Stad! Bhean, feuch! Stad! Stop! Lady, please! Stop! I heard Hector and the others yelling, but it seemed faint, almost on the edge of hearing, as I ran along the path, desperate to catch up, to see what was on the other side of those beautiful doors.
I had my hand outstretched, inches from the doorway, when something hit me from the side, hard enough to send me flying across the path and crashing into one of the giant mossy pine trees. I stood back up, and the last thing I saw was a pair of horns before the world went dark.
“Great-grandda Hector headbutted her right i’ the face at a full charge to keep her from runnin’ awa’ with the Fair Folk,” Connor said, chuckling. “He made sure she was out cold, then ran like Auld Scratch himsel’ was after him. Thought she was going to have his balls for a coin pouch for layin’ hands on her. ”
“Would have, too, if I had been able to catch him,” I said, laughing. “Luckily, by the time I came to, the sun was up and he was halfway across Caledonia. You satyrs are bloody fast when you need to be.”
“And slow when we need to be, right, a leannan?” he replied, squeezing my hip again and making me blush.
“Och, aye, satyrs are verra adaptable beasts,” I said, in my best Scots accent. “No the most biddable, mind, but adaptable.”
“So, children, the moral of the story is, don’t go chasing after processions of unearthly beauties in the dark of the moon.”
“What were they, Aunt Hestia?” Nike asked, and I sighed.
“There are a lot of terms for them – the Old Ones, the Fair Folk, the Shining Host, the fairies, sidhe. Some people call them elves.”
“Did you ever see them again?”
“Not up close – but I always keep a lookout on the nights when the veil between worlds is thin. Sometimes I see a spark where there shouldn’t be one, or hear the sound of bells. They’re still around, but they have gotten much, much better at hiding.”
I took a deep drink of the mulled wine and looked around the circle.
“So, now that everyone has heard how Aunt Hestia got coldcocked by a satyr buck to keep her from running away with the fairies, who’s next?”